Archive for the ‘Ward’ Category


ABC’s Favorite Books of 2010, Part the Third

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Here you are, another part of the ABC Staff’s Favorite Reads of the past year.  We hope you enjoy reading about what we enjoyed reading the past 12 months, and hopefully we’ll give you some ideas to boot!

The lists this time were sent in by Ester, Karin, and Ward.  One got to meet her favorite author in the world (and befriend him in the process!), one finally found some time to catch up on a few classics, and one is venturing boldly into a new type of fiction.

This year we would again love to hear from you what your favorite reads were.  Please send us your top 5 (they don’t have to be books published in 2010, just read in 2010).  You can mail them to blog@abc.nl, and be sure to include your mailing address so we can send you an ABC gift voucher as a thank you.  We’ll publish your lists at the beginning of 2011 so you have all month to mail them in.  Thanks to those of you who have already sent in lists!

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Sundown on Sunset Park

Friday, November 19th, 2010

A Staff Review of Paul Auster’s New Novel by Ward

A mere year after having published the excellent Invisible, Paul Auster presents us with Sunset Park, his fourteenth novel since debuting twenty-three years ago with the still-fantastic New York Trilogy. During the years that have followed, Auster has managed to maintain a strong following, supplying his readers with a steady stream of fiction and non-fiction, with a couple of screenplays, poetry collections and translations thrown in for good measure. Together, these add up to a pretty respectable oeuvre, and looking back we see that few years have gone by without Auster publishing something or other. Among these have been some unquestionable gems (last year’s Invisible most definitely included), but too often now I have seen Auster repeating himself, be that in content or in form.

The New York Trilogy was a perfect mix of experimental yet readable writing and postmodern contemplation, and part of its success can be ascribed to the fact that Auster not only questioned the meaning of self in these three novellas, but laid bare his own self in the process. Baseball (one of his passions), crime fiction (another one of his interests) New York City (his hometown) and even his own name (literally used in the novel) all came together to form a unique, intelligent and utterly captivating whole. Add to this the plethora of literary allusions he incorporated into the novel, and a critical as well as a popular classic was born.

Ever since then, we have seen many of these biographical elements return in his work, and to this process of recycling Sunset Park is no exception. Like so many of his novels, the story is (largely) set in New York City (even deriving its title from one of the city’s neighborhoods), is rife with literary allusions, and features more references to American baseball players than a European reader not that interested in sports to begin with could possibly hope to handle.

The fact that Auster once again sticks to a formula that has proved successful in the past is not something I necessarily object to, but in Sunset Park his use of the abovementioned elements comes across not as a strength but as a crutch for him to lean on—safe ground for the writer to retreat to when inspiration fails to come knocking. The literary and cultural allusions feel empty and contrived, New York City is no longer the enticing labyrinth once roamed by New York Trilogy’s Quinn, and the baseball anecdotes are little more than filler.

As far as Auster is concerned though, “baseball is a universe as large as life itself, and therefore all things in life, whether good or bad, whether tragic or comic, fall within its domain.” And so we find protagonist Miles Heller “flipping through the Baseball Encyclopedia in search of odd and amusing names,” while way too many anecdotes regarding the sport and its practitioners keep popping up throughout the story—without actually adding all that much. Thus, the extent to which you will enjoy reading this novel at least partly depends on the extent to which you agree with the statement I have quoted above.

The actual story of Sunset Park is pretty straightforward, however, and it is quite refreshing to see Auster telling a story without relying too heavily on the experimental narration that he has become known for. In short: twenty-something Miles Heller has left New York because of something that has happened in his past, and currently resides in south Florida where he holds an uninspiring if not downright depressing job cleaning out the houses of people who have been evicted because they could no longer make rent. In Florida he meets the love of his life in the form of high school student Pilar Sanchez, after which circumstances force him to relocate. Since Bing Nathan, one of Miles’s friends, conveniently has a room on offer in the house in Sunset Park that he and a few others have squatted, Miles returns to New York to confront the demons of his past and come to terms with himself so he can finally start thinking about a future.

The above synopsis might lead you to believe that Sunset Park is very much a human story, and in a way it is, especially when compared to some of Auster’s other work, in which certain characters have been so explicitly fictitious and two-dimensional that it is hard to think of them as anything more than words on a page—think of Black, Brown and Blue in New York Trilogy’s Ghosts, for example. The problem with Sunset Park, however, is that its characters are fairly two-dimensional as well. Yet where in Ghosts this two-dimensionality was intentional, the explicit fictitiousness of the characters serving a clear purpose, the characters that make up Sunset Park come across as merely underdeveloped, and largely fail to come alive or to inspire any real emotional involvement on the reader’s part. Therefore I cannot help but think that Sunset Park was somewhat of a rush job for Auster, a half-hearted attempt at getting a new book out on the shelves without bothering too much about content or quality. This is not to say that Sunset Park is entirely without merits, but rather that the manuscript would have benefitted from some serious editing and revision.

Interestingly—and, in contrast to the novel he actually presents us with here, ironically—Auster spends quite a few paragraphs on convincing the reader of the power and importance of books and reading. For this he uses Morris Heller (father of Miles) as his mouthpiece, who runs a small publishing house and envisions writing a book called Forty Years in the Desert: Publishing Literature in a Country Where People Hate Books. And as if this title is not enough of a hyperbole for Auster, we find Morris talking about wanting to “protect [his employees] and make them understand that in spite of the idiot culture that surrounds them, books still count, and the work they are doing is important work, essential work.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that books and reading are important, essential even. It just seems to me that the best way to go about defending and propagating literature is by actually writing it, not by complaining about idiot cultures and the state of affairs in a mediocre novel. Let us just hope that by writing Sunset Park Auster has managed to get whatever it was that was bugging him out of his system, so that he will be able to focus on quality again next time.

Staff Review: Anthill by E.O. Wilson

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Reviewed by Ward

Anthill is the debut novel of famed biologist E.O. Wilson, and an unusual one at that, not least because of the fact that a) its author was a respectable eighty years old at the time of its publication a few months ago (he turned eighty-one in June), and b) he already has a long list of successful non-fiction works under his name.

Why then this sudden, if not risky transition to the field of fiction? Had Wilson not already published his autobiography Naturalist some fifteen years ago, it would have been tempting to look at Anthill not as a novel, but as a memoir rather. With old age upon him, writing a thinly veiled autobiography and passing it off as fiction might have been the perfect way for the man behind the mask of the much respected (and two-time Pulitzer prize winning!) biologist to try and preserve his complete persona for future generations, instead of ‘just’ leaving behind his intellectual legacy in the field of biology—as impressive and valuable as that legacy may be.

This somewhat cynical perspective becomes especially tempting when considering the many similarities that exist between Wilson and the novel’s protagonist, Raphael Semmes Cody, better known as Raff. Like his creator, Raff is an Alabama native, becomes an Eagle Scout (the highest obtainable rank) with the Boy Scouts of America, makes the move to Boston to study at Harvard, and, of course, is absolutely fascinated with the workings and wonders of the natural world, and then those of ants especially.

However, the fact that Wilson is already widely read and published and has more than proved himself in the field of biology, as well as shed a light on his personal life with the abovementioned Naturalist, leads me to conclude that Anthill must be more than a ‘mere’ trip down memory lane for Wilson, and may have been written with a different goal in mind.

Could it be then, that the story of Anthill is so unique or captivating that it simply had to be told? To be perfectly honest with you, no. As great a biologist as Wilson may be, this novel makes it clear that writing fiction is not his strong suit. Anthill is too bogged down with literary clichés and stereotypes in order for its characters to ever really come alive, whether those be Raff the young idealist, his radically green/feminist girlfriend at Harvard, the mysterious and possibly dangerous recluse Frogman and his rumored 1,000 pound alligator, or the religious fanatics that make an appearance at the end of the novel.

The fact that Anthill is flawed as a novel does not mean that it is without its merits, however. On the contrary. The middle section of the book, effectively titled “The Anthill Chronicles” is absolutely fantastic. Here, we follow the lives and fates of a number of anthills located at Dead Owl Cove, a section of the Nobokee wilderness close to where Raff grew up. And as tedious as the part leading up to these chronicles may have been, as alive and exciting these chronicles are themselves. By leaving the human world behind and zooming in on the ants, Wilson manages to sidestep the traps and limitations that confine him as a novelist, and as the biologist in him takes over, the book shifts gears. In essence, Wilson is on home turf here, and it definitely shows in his writing.

Somewhat ironically perhaps, I actually found myself caring more about the fate of these ants than that of any of the human characters I had encountered in the novel so far, which says a lot about not only the subpar characterization of the people in the novel, but also about the vividness and skill, and especially the obvious love for the subject, with which the world of the ants is depicted. And in that way, Anthill can be said to be successful in at least one respect, namely to show and convince the reader of the importance and complexity of the natural world and all the creatures that it harbors, not least of all the oft overlooked and trivialized insect world. For as Wilson states in the prologue:

“This is the story of three parallel worlds, which nevertheless exist in the same space and time…The smallest are the ants, who build civilizations in the dirt. Their histories are epics that unfold on picnic grounds…Human societies are the second world…Thousands of times greater in space and time is the third of our worlds, the biosphere, the totality of all life, plastered like a membrane over all of earth…Humanity…can perturb it, but we cannot leave it or destroy it without perishing ourselves. The cycles of the other species can be destroyed, and the biosphere corrupted. But for each careless step we take, our species will ultimately pay an unwelcome price—always.”

A dire warning, to say the least. This prologue, together with the main storyline of Raff trying to save the Nobokee tract from being developed and preserve it in its natural state, shows that environmental concern may have been at the top of Wilson’s list when writing this novel. And while he fails to rouse any real concern by writing from a human point of view—Raff is simply too flat a character to be able to carry this torch—he manages to do exactly that by showing us how fragile and easily disturbed our balance with the natural world really is when writing from the perspective of the ants. Thus, Wilson at least partly succeeds in getting his ecological concerns and conservationist ideals across, though be it indirectly.

However, as much as I can sympathize with its ecological message, the true strength of Anthill lies in its ability to bridge the gap between fiction and science writing. Had Wilson not taken the leap to writing fiction, I might never have come across his work at all. Now, thanks to Anthill, my curiosity has been piqued, and I actually look forward to trying some of Wilson’s non-fiction work in the future. Especially if it is written in as riveting a style as “The Anthill Chronicles”.

Staff review: Of Mice and Men + Cataloochee

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Reviewed by Ward

What better time to catch up with the classics or immerse yourself in something new than a lazy summer afternoon? I’ve had the beautifully executed Steinbeck Centennial boxed set sitting on the shelf for at least half a year now, but didn’t get around to actually reading any of it until a couple of weeks ago, finally (and thankfully!) giving Of Mice and Men a try. Wayne Caldwell’s Cataloochee I picked up on a visit to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park earlier this summer, and regardless of whether you are familiar with the region or not, Caldwell’s lucid writing will surely convince you of the Smokies’ rugged beauty.

John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men

Set in California during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men is the shortest of Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novels, and tells the story of migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small, two of the most sympathetic and memorable—and, in the case of simpleton and Big Friendly Giant Lennie, heartbreaking—characters I have ever come across in the American literary canon. From the moment their names first appear on the page in a tranquil poolside setting until the story’s harsh yet inevitable ending in the exact same spot, the reader is drawn into their brotherly story of hardship and struggle, of fragile hopes and shattered dreams, confronted with the brutal truth that dreams, as modest and tangible as they may be, don’t bear fruit against a backdrop this harsh. Too short to be crowned the Great American Novel, labeling Of Mice and Men the Great American Novella would not be too much praise.

Wayne Caldwell – Cataloochee

Cataloochee is the debut novel of Wayne Caldwell, and takes its title from a remote and secluded North Carolina valley in a region that has now become part of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. In this Eden-like setting, on the one hand serene and unspoiled, and on the other hand hard and unforgiving as only Nature can be, we follow the lives of several families as they try to scrape a living from the unrelenting soil. Spanning several generations, from the history of some of the first families to settle there in the early-to-mid 1800s until the region’s official designation as National Park in 1928, we get a glimpse of mountain life in all its hardship and its beauty, and see how neither the valley or its people can escape the yoke of progress and civilization, for better or for worse. From harvest to hunting and from moonshining to murder, Caldwell, a North Carolina native himself, manages to get the feel of the place just right, and has provided us with a wonderful window into Appalachian life of yore.

ABC’s Favorite Books of 2009, part F

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

BookstackAh yes, it’s December, the time of looking over the past year and deciding what was great, what was so-so, and what could be done better next year.  In what is now very much a tradition, the ABC staff has been rootling through the books they read over the past year to decide what were the proper gems and what were the baubles.  Over the next few days and weeks Hayley and I will be posting their favorites.

Which reminds me: we would love to know what your 5 favorite reads of the past year were (they don’t have to be books published in 2009).  Please send them to blog@abc.nl (it’s not too late!)(really!), and please include your mailing address so we can send you an ABC gift voucher as our thank you.

In this penultimate edition you’ll see what Klaartje, Sander, and Ward loved reading this past year.  Fair warning: they’re a talkative lot!  So who is thinking about joining a new church started by demons?  Who’s an RPGer (and soon to join me as a level 80 in WoW!)(and no, I will not mention what kind of a day it was today for him ;-) )?  And who’s not fond of a writer’s bag of tricks?

Click on more to find out!

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